Unlock the Middle

September 14, 2021by danagoodier0

Dean Packard (L) and Chris Starczewski (R) are middle school principals in Dudley/Charlton, MA.

Unlock the Middle are proud middle school principals co-hosting a videocast  to celebrate and unlock all that is special about middle school. They are Chris Starczewski and Dean Packard and they live in Dudley/Charlton, MA. They get excited helping students, educators and parents learn and grow.

Chris Starczewski is the Principal of Dudley Middle School in Dudley, Massachusetts. He started out in Education in 1994. Taught math. He has three kids:  Brooke, Abigail & John and two dogs: Princess & Rocco.  In his spare time he likes to exercise, fish, read and find ways to become better.

Dean Packard is in his 28th year in education – 18th year at Charlton Middle School as an administrator.  He spent 10 years teaching history in high school, and coaching boys’ varsity basketball. He has also spent the last 18 years in administration at Charlton Middle School, 7 as an assistant principal and the last 11 as principal.

Tell me about how you two met:  When they were starting out as administrators, they have shared, collaborated and built paths together. They live about 25 minutes apart. Are at each other’s houses often. They are in agreement about how to empower people. Chris typically likes to talk more than Dean.

Tell me about a time when you were in the trenches and managed to crawl out: Chris’ story: back in the classroom, met the needs of kids, not having teacher-directed expectations. Took a summer gig as a computer teacher & counselor. Found passions there. Working in schools then taught him about abilities students have. Story about a student who wasn’t successful academically or socially, having had him in class and being on campus, he was able to open up to him, gave him support and assistance. Student was in a significant crisis. He was a camp counselor, figured it was an easy way to get work in education. Followed his wife into the classroom. Fell in love. Dean’s story: in 1993, he got a phone call from the superintendent. Was a new coach. There were 250 applicants for a teaching position. Had a mixed classroom with multiple ability levels. They were 7th graders, tough. It taught him the value of relationships. He learned a lot about who he was. Spent 10 years as a history teacher. Took 2nd M.A. in Leadership and migrated to Charlton Middle School. Everything we do is based around relationships with kids. Coaching teaches you about adversity quick. You’re always shaking and moving. Tough time was being a HS coach. Why did you start “Unlock the Middle”?– it came about in the summer. Around Dean’s kitchen and it came about. Theeir videocast is about nothing that means a lot, like Seinfeld. Middle school components are so big. They look all over Twitter, they have contemplated themes. Have off-shoots “Middle Marvels” how teachers impact their buildings. Are looking at hot topics like what they have with faculty + staff. They’ve had discussions about fairness, equity and inclusivity. Bringing in themes as a connection. Not necessarily a roadmap.

You’ve both been in Middle School administrative roles for a while. Talk about how you’re rethinking and reimagining schools: It’s never gonna be the same so approach the learning environment with “shouldn’t do” to “have to do”. You won’t allow shift towards formal traditional practices. When they started out together in Dudley/Charlton, they learned school can be anything you want it to be. Chris worked on transition from traditional to standards-based grading. Brought experiences into the district, spoke about things that really matter. He worked on a curriculum planning model. They both have amazing staff. Epiphany happened when they started having banter about best practices. Started the planning early on. Chris had no problem breaking down the walls. Empower the people who do the heavy work every day. They want to applaud teachers for taking risks.

Provide some examples of how you’ve empowered staff to be innovative: Chris– 2 7th grade ELA teachers wanted to utilize collaborative time. They turned it into the Titan Times newspaper. Got a grant. The teacher wasn’t teaching writing in a traditional sense. They were taught what a peer editing process looked like. They weren’t relying on teachers but peers to get feedback. Dean– used blended learning techniques. Financial literacy program that created school store. Kids find out how to build a business and market. As of recording they were getting ready to get the store online. It helped the kids learn to use spreadsheets. It makes the learning fun. They want to bring in student voice with video and podcast from their schools. Let the kids take it and “run with it”.

What has your videocast taught you since starting in July, did it happen suddenly, and tell me about some of the guests you’ve had: They don’t consider it to be work, are highly involved in two educational endeavors, both “Middle Marvels” which nominates teachers and their videocast. In the summer, they put their ideas for the videocast on paper. Had Dr. Greg Goings, Connie Hamilton on as some of the first guests. People want to tell their stories. We’re feeding the world about what education should be like. It’s about the product they’re providing for others. They walk the same walk. Reimagining education isn’t about blowing something up.  Rick Wormelli & other guests have taught them something. They want to shift the spotlight on people they’re bringing in. They want to find people who have similar experiences and ideas about what we’re doing, ideas to shift the long-standing practice. Think of the analogy of a rock hitting a pebble and then causing a landslide. Making “earth shaping experiences”. They are currently booked out until mid March.

Why the title “unlock” the middle? They went through a few 100 titles. When think about middle level learning, we thing about, in some ways, catastrophic experiences. There are so many different keys to the middle school experience. The skeleton key is so complex. They want to bring in brain-based experts and theorists. The student voice piece will come out- will be phased in. Topics, areas on how they learn, why they learn. It’s about defining their “why”. Unlock the middle is about a gate being opened.

Key quotes: Dean “remember to be humble, be willing to listen to people, be able to build relationships”. He learns every single day how to connect with people. Everything about our business is about connecting with people. It will make or break you. Chris– “Bring back that relationship is primary”. They’ll remember you for how you treated them the first day, wrote the date on the board, etc. It’s about human capacity. The world needs great people right now. Those things aren’t necessarily embedded in the curriculum. We want students to be service-oriented to make positive change.

Find Chris and Dean online on Twitter, FB, IG @unlockthemiddle  You can email them at: unlockingthemiddle@gmail.com & visit their website. Follow Chris and Dean individually on Twitter @CMSPrincipal1 @DMS_Leadlearner Their videocast, Unlock The Middle, airs live on Sunday nights at 8pm (EST) on Twitter (@UnlockTheMiddle), Facebook (@UnlockTheMiddle) and our YouTube Channel (Unlock The Middle).  Watch this episode on YouTube: https://youtu.be/jwNUCB6ppjw

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